House committee targets UAV programmes

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Two unmanned aircraft systems could be scaled back next year under a new version of the fiscal year 2012 spending bill, despite a deployment surge to Afghanistan.

Purchases of the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout, the vertical take-off unmanned air vehicle operated by the US Navy, would decline by 12 aircraft, saving $115 million.

Meanwhile, the budget for a key upgrade of the US Air Force's General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper also would fall by about 15%.

 
 © US Navy

A 27 May report from the House appropriations committee on the Department of Defense's FY2012 budget request nodded to complaints by the armed services that the MQ-8B (above) lacks range and capability, and cut funds for the remaining planned purchases of the system.

The committee report also notes that the programme has been adrift since purchases of its intended carrier, the Littoral Combat Ship, were sharply limited in 2010. It also endorsed moving the funds saved by cutting the MQ-8B order to both the substantially-improved -C model and its yet-to-be-defined replacement. "The committee supports the navy's plan to move to a longer range maritime unmanned air vehicle, and the recommendation fully funds the navy's request for development funding for this effort."

Northrop has recently announced its intention to migrate future MQ-8 purchases to the -C model, which replaces the -B's Schweizer 333 airframe with a Bell 407, drastically increasing range and lifting capability.

The USN's current MQ-8B is now operational in Afghanistan, with three airframes, still formally under testing, having been deployed in April to the Regional Command - North's area of operations. This marks the type's second operational deployment, following ongoing operations on the USS Halyburton on counter-piracy patrol off the coast of Somalia.

"In less than one month, we have flown more than 200 flight hours and completed more than 80 sorties and we are on track to fly 300h per month," said the navy. The deployed aircraft are government-owned but operated by Northrop under military command. Further details of operations in Afghanistan were unavailable.

The reason for the USAF's proposed MQ-9 budget cut was not directed at the airframe, but its testing progress. The Block 5 upgrade, which adds power, communications and sensor improvements, is running a year behind schedule, the committee reports. As a result, the panel withdrew about $145 million from a nearly $1 billion budget request for the Reaper next year.